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Monday, 15 February 2021
Page: 471

Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (10:56): The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability is a historic opportunity for truth and justice. It was created as the result of a vast community campaign, spanning every section of our country, to create a mechanism by which we as disabled people would be able to tell our stories and to disclose the information that we have and the evidence we have gathered—speaking to the violence, speaking to the abuse, speaking to the exploitation and neglect of our community. It should be the case that every person who wishes to give that evidence to the commission is able to do so, their safety guaranteed—safe in the knowledge that giving that evidence, giving that information, sharing that story, will not in any way negatively impact on them. It will not jeopardise their future employment. It will not place them at risk of harm.

The reality, however, is that right now, due to a flaw in the law which creates and empowers royal commissions, that guarantee of protection, that guarantee of privacy, cannot be given. Right now, the confidentiality of information given to the commission as confidential only remains and is retained as confidential for the life of the royal commission. This means that, when the royal commission ends, the confidentiality protection ends. That information can be FOI'd. That information can be given as evidence. This flaw in the law removes people's confidence in the protection that is needed for them to come forward and tell their stories.

This is particularly harmful in a context where we know that, if you have experienced violence, abuse, exploitation or neglect, you have almost certainly experienced systemic failure. Somebody who was charged with your protection let you down, abused you. In order to get people to come forward and tell their stories, to give the evidence to guide the investigation of these systemic failures, people must be given the confidence that their confidentiality will be protected and that giving this evidence will not do them any harm, because disabled people have been telling our stories for many decades and we are often subject to harm because we've disclosed them. We are often dissuaded from giving our evidence, and it often has a negative impact. The outcome of this absence of protection is that the disability royal commission is not getting the evidence that it needs. It is not hearing the evidence that it needs to hear in order to guide its investigation so that it can make recommendations at the end of this process—having exposed the wrongs and the cover-ups—that we, as parliamentarians, need to form the basis of legislation, which will then eliminate from our society the violence against and the abuse and neglect of disabled people.

For 18 months the government have known that this change is needed. At the very first hearing, the chair of the royal commission flagged that this change was needed. The commission then wrote to the government in February 2020 saying, 'This change is needed.' The commission stated clearly in its October interim report that the absence of these protections was serving as an impediment to the investigation, an impediment to this historic opportunity for justice. We Greens have been clear with the Morrison government: if you do not act, we will. We introduced this bill in October. We put the government on notice that this change was urgently needed. The government have failed to be forthcoming, so today this bill is being debated, and I hope it will be voted on and voted for by this chamber. It will, very simply, ensure that if evidence is given confidentially it is retained as confidential. It will provide safety and security to people giving their evidence so that they can begin the process of building up the support they need to tell their story, to come forward and say: 'This is what happened. This is who knew. This is who I tried to tell.'

We know that there are so many people in the community who worked in governmental institutions—who still work in government—who have observed the profound failure to bring light into dark places, to ensure justice is done; instead, observing cover-up and silence. We know that there are people who want to tell their stories but have not done so because of the absence of these protections. This bill solves that problem. It sorts it, as it should have been sorted 18 months ago. I commend it to the chamber in the hope that it will be voted on and passed, and that finally disabled people will have the protection we need to tell our stories, to heal and to get justice.